What’s best for students gets kicked to the curb when adults obsess over who wins and who loses.
Karen Clardy’s abrupt resignation from her job as president of the Richardson school board jolted thousands in her community. Whether working in the front office at Lake Highlands High School or leading the district’s board, Clardy has loved, supported and served Richardson students as far back as many in the RISD family can remember.
Yet given how stinking divisive things have become in Richardson and other school districts across North Texas, the bigger shock is why anyone is still willing to serve on these local boards.
Between the masks and vaccines warfare and hysteria over how racial issues are taught, you couldn’t pay me enough to be a school board representative in 2021. Not to mention that few districts even compensate their board members.
Now more than ever, we need courageous, thoughtful school board members — women and men committed to doing the right thing on behalf of children, all of whom have suffered so deeply because of the pandemic.
Yet that’s a tough ask. The job has become challenging — if not impossible — as meetings, from Southlake to Plano to Argyle, explode into chaotic battlegrounds and party politics infiltrate once nonpartisan boards.
The result of this hostile state of affairs is that kids’ best interests get kicked to the curb as a loud minority of adults obsess over who is in control, who wins and who loses.
I fear even the latest hopeful headlines — that vaccines may soon be authorized for children age 5 and up — will serve only to again stir the controversy pot.
The situation has become so toxic across the U.S. that the National School Boards Association wrote President Joe Biden to ask if Washington can find a way to help districts cope with the threats and violence that come as board members tackle COVID-19 school safety policies and critical race theory controversies.
The six-page letter included more than 20 examples of harassment, disruption and acts of intimidation that occurred during board meetings.
In North Texas, we’ve watched angry adults demonstrate and hurl insults, disrupt proceedings and mock students. Even when pandemic or racial justice issues aren’t on the agenda, people with hot takes and bad information want their time at the microphone.
In some districts, including Frisco and Allen, parents have sued because no mask mandate is in place; other ISDs face litigation from parents with the opposite point of view.
The most shoddy behavior has taken place in Richardson, where board meetings have turned ugly and those elected to do what’s best for children have been flayed on social media.
The continuing fight against the district’s decision to mandate masks is bad enough, but even worse is the orchestrated effort by a small but vocal group to use the pandemic to push back against RISD’s stellar equity efforts.
Here’s a little background to help you understand the significance of the district’s work — under the leadership of superintendent Jeannie Stone — in that regard:
Richardson ISD stands out among the many districts in Dallas and Collin counties because it faces the challenge of educating a relatively equal number of high poverty and affluent students.
For way too long, the district was also one of the most inequitable in the state in terms of the achievement gap between its white students and its Hispanic and Black students, as well as between its low-income and non-low-income students.
Into that sorry situation came Stone, who for seven years has fought hard to make sure all students are supported for success.
My reading of the district’s academic results is that, even amid COVID-19, the superintendent’s strategies, with the support of the school board, continue to work.
But a little band of loud extremists in Richardson believes otherwise, and especially on social media, makes false claims that if schools invest more in some kids, they are hurting others.
Take that narrative a step further and it becomes a “we need to focus on reading and ‘rithmetic — not all that other stuff.”
“All that other stuff” is code for what this group — and similar factions in other districts — inaccurately lumps together and vilifies as critical race theory.
Critical race theory is an academic framework that views racism as ingrained in law and other modern institutions — not a curriculum taught in K-12 schools.
But politicians and parents intent on making critical race theory the boogeyman don’t let the facts get in the way of scaring less-informed families into believing that any mention of race and racism is a plot to make white children feel ashamed of their race and country.
Come to think of it, in today’s toxic education environment, I probably would serve on a school board if my only other option was to be a teacher or principal.
Earlier this month, the Carroll school board voted 3-2 to reprimand a fourth grade instructor — among the district’s Teacher of the Year winners in 2020-21 — after a parent complained about a child bringing home This Book Is Anti-Racist, by Tiffany Jewell.
Now campuses in this Southlake district are being forced to review what’s kept in each classroom library and teachers must go through mandatory training on new district rules governing books.
In the Grapevine-Colleyville district, the school board is caught up in a controversy involving James Whitfield, the first Black principal at Colleyville Heritage High School.
Last week, Whitfield formally appealed a board vote that set into motion the nonrenewal of his contract after accusations were made that he had implemented a critical race theory curriculum.
The board maintains that the issue is not critical race theory but a recent performance evaluation. Whitfield argues that the trouble began after the bogus curriculum accusation began circulating.
Some fights are worth having, and few of us are privy to all the facts that led to these decisions. But too often it feels like school governance work is being hijacked by the wrong stuff.
I had hoped to provide some clarity on the reasons for Clardy’s surprising departure from the Richardson board, but after considering my request for several days, she politely declined to talk about her resignation.
Watching her on the school board for five years, my impression is that she’s not someone who quits anything easily nor is someone cowed by nasty rhetoric.
The good news is that, despite Clardy’s departure, the school board as a whole still seems resolutely behind Stone’s vision.
Other districts and school boards would be wise to follow the lead of districts like Richardson on both safety and academic measures, especially as learning gaps based on family income and race have only widened across the U.S during the pandemic.
I also sense that most Richardson parents understand that equity is not a zero-sum game, but rather a commitment to the idea that all students deserve an equal opportunity to thrive.